CHIANG RAI, 17 January 2017: Travel to the Mekong Region is often called the ‘last frontier,” but with a littler effort the frontier hassles can be rolled back for the determined traveller.
A phrase coined to conjure up the mystique of travel ironically identifies the major snag for travellers to the Greater Mekong Sub-region; frontiers.
Myanmar is a contradiction as far as last frontiers are concerned. It rolls back obstacles through its widely popular e-Visa programme, while frustrating innovative travel providers with frontier closures that put the tourism of entire regions at risk.
Myanmar’s e-Visa is an example of the country getting it right and leading the way in the Mekong Region. Closing a border checkpoint with China just two months ago and forbidding eastbound land travel beyond Inle lake for cars and motor cycle tours frustrates tour planners.
New barriers crop up without notice, usually as a response to a security scare, or military confrontation, but they send a negative message and stymie innovative tour content.
However, the e-Visa is the good news. It was introduced 2014, first for travellers flying to the gateway cities of Yangon, Mandalay and the political capital of Nay Pyi Taw offering visitors a simple online application process and a credit card payment facility for a 28 day tourist stay.
The list of eligible nationalities is comprehensive and the USD50 e-Visa is usually approved within 24 hours by email. If you intend to enter the country through one of the three airline gateway cities and then fly out from another city at the close of the holiday this visa option fits the bill.
The e-Visa limitation linking it to just three aviation gateways was resolved last September when Myanmar added three overland checkpoints bordering Thailand (Myawaddy-Mae Sot, Tachilek-Mae Sai and Kawthaung-Ranong).
This allows travellers to enter the country at one of the three land checkpoints and exit through any e-Visa authorised airport or land border checkpoint across the country.
Myanmar was the first country in ASEAN to introduce a user-friendly pay online e-Visa and it would benefit other ASEAN nations including tourism giant, Thailand, to adopt a similar e-Visa programme to streamline what is a cumbersome and unfriendly array of visas that are time wasting and antiquated.
Creating an e-Visa channel encourages travel, earns revenue for the government, frees up staff, reduces queues at visa-on-arrival counters at airports and generally creates a positive experience at the immigration counter. It’s a lot less work to process.
How efficient is Myanmar’s e-Visa at an overland checkpoint? Does it work without a fuss at a busy checkpoint such as Mae Sai in Chiang Rai province, notorious for inefficient immigration officers and border pass congestion?
I tested it last week. It took just 10 minutes to fill out the visa form online and attach a jpeg mug shot. If the jpeg file is too big then it will ask you to choose a more manageable size, so the trick is to make sure you have a suitable photo sitting on your desktop waiting to upload.
I opted for American Express to pay the USD50 non-refundable fee, which was confirmed in seconds by a message that gave me an e-Visa application number.
An email confirmed my application was underway and it took just 24 hours to receive the approval email with all the details of the e-Visa and a barcode.
You print out the e-Visa and you are ready to travel to the border.
That could be a pain point. Mae Sai-Tachilek is notorious for the horror stories travellers tell about immigration officials, usually posted on ThaiVisa.com.
It turned out to be painless. Sure the Thai immigration official had forgotten his manners and was disinterested in the task of checking a traveller out of the country. But he stamped the passport in the right spot and dismissed me without a second glance.
Myanmar’s immigration officials clearly hadn’t seen too many e-Visas recently, but the tiny office had a seat and I sat down patiently waiting for him to check its validity. It took a couple of minutes to locate the file online that stated I was allowed to enter for 28 days and travel freely throughout the land.
It was the barcode that stumped him. It didn’t work. He walked off to find his boss, who set about unravelling the barcode mystery. He twigged it. Someone has pulled the plug on the barcode reader. Now we are in business, barcode reader scans successfully and chop, chop, the traditional stamp thumps the e-Visa sheet and passport. I am waved into the country. Done and dusted in five minutes flat.
From the Tachilek main street I can now hail a taxi and head for the airport 7 km away on the outskirts of what is now a bustling border town, famed for its duty-free shops and casino resorts.
I don’t require any other permit. I can buy an airline ticket for flights to Bagan, Mandalay, Yangon and Heho boarding the domestic ATR 70 flights of any of the five airlines that land at Tachilek mid-morning.
The e-Visa also allows me to visit Keng Tung 163 km from Tachilek often called the capital of the Golden Triangle. There are a few complications. I will need to book a car and driver at the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism’s tiny office next to immigration. They assign drivers and cars, jot down your passport details for a one-way trip that will cost around USD70 (Roundtrip USD140).
But that is as far as you can go. Thoughts of pressing on, exiting at the border with China and pursuing a travel itinerary through Yunnan province and Laos are really pipe dreams.
The border gate is firmly shut. The 86-km road trip from Keng Tung to Mong La that faces the China border is off limits. You won’t find a car or guide to take you along that deserted road and that is the way it has been for two months or more.
The official reason is security. Chinese business, casinos and prostitution rings thrived at the border town. China cracked down. There were disputes between rivals groups, who ran the casinos in and around Mong La. The door was slammed shut, so much for ‘friendship bridges’.
Authorities boarded up the bridge entrance and Mekong Region travel through the gateway met a frontier that stopped them in their tracks. Did anyone in authority look at the losses that genuine tourism operators and hotels would suffer when they boarded up the bridge?
Travellers can freely explore Myanmar as far as Inle Lake, but there the journey east along Asian Highway 3 to Keng Tung and Mong La ends.
There is no sign that this will change despite the damage the ban on travel is having on tourism in Keng Tung.
The immediate casualties are the adventure tours by motorcycles and car caravans that toured the country to Inle lake and then headed east to Keng Tung.
No one is sure when the ban will be lifted. Optimists in Keng Tung talk about the winter season of 2017 after the monsoon rains. They hazard a guess, wishfully talking about February or March, but the reality is that until there are talks between Myanmar and China on a country-to-country basis to deal Mong La border issues, local fiefdoms will continue to squabble and stall tourism growth.
On the lighter side of travel, self-drive travel between Tachilek and Keng Tung is also forbidden. The 163 km stretch of rutted tarmac and the lack of gas stations and rest stops (there is one at the halfway mark) would discourage most travellers. Despite the stunning scenery, the long exhilarating climbs on a mountain road skirting rivers, climbing and descending hilly ridges, motorcycle tour are a nightmare to organise.
Even the simple cycle tour is frowned on. If you are keen to cycle to Keng Tung you will need a car escort, driver and a registered guide (USD45 a day). If you cannot pedal the 163 km distance in daylight along a hilly route rising from around 300 metres to 850 metres an overnight stop in a village inn halfway is not an option. There are no hotels registered to accommodate foreigners on the route and the final checkpoint outside of Keng Tung closes at 2100. Closing time to enter the city used to be 1800 in days gone-by forcing cars to leave Tachilek at 1000 for the eight- hour drive to reach the city checkpoint by 1800.
Today, the bus trip takes four hours and the barrier will lift for late night nomads until the magic hour of 2100 when the official goes home to watch the telly.
The e-Visa makes it easier to explore Myanmar, but there are still a few surprises and barriers strung out that make touring the land freely at your own pace a challenge. As for linking a tour of North Thailand with Shan state, Yunnan province and Laos in a grand circle tour, that is the stuff of dreams.
The trip to Tachilek and Keng Tung was part of a media trip hosted by Amazing Holidays Hotels & Resorts and organised by Jaffee Yee, chairman of the PATA Chiang Rai Chapter. It was part of an ongoing Chapter programme to promote linked tourism between Chiang Rai province and Myanmar’s Shan State.